There’s Still Onions in the Stew
February 2024, Island Voices

There’s Still Onions in the Stew

By Seán Malone and John Sweetman

One day, overlooking the outer harbor, Seán and I shared between us some “bean-hole beans” and some “smoked ham hock green pea soup.” Naturally, tasting these dishes brought up the usual conversation. Seán still makes those old “Boy Scout” bean-hole beans without an actual bean-hole fire dug into the soggy ground.

Both of these dishes were ideas passed down from our families. Our mutual talk involved various family traditions of food preparation. We still argue about “clam chowder” … as is the duty of anyone who has grown up on the beach.

The trouble with arguing between the two of us these days is that we are getting older and tend to forget one thing or another. We were arguing about “bacon” until it turned out we had already agreed on the type and cut!

We were out cutting wood one day, and a statement was made … “We can still do the same things now that we could do at 30 years old!”

“What did we do at 30?”

“Well, I forgot.”

These could be nature’s warning signs of getting older, I suspect.

We both remember the meals that we hated. Yech! Tuna casserole with crumbled cornflakes on top! Those “squiggly” gelatin upside-down things with shredded carrots and other unidentifiable ingredients. Canned spinach and the horrible “creamed” corn. Boiled beets, boiled brussels sprouts, and overboiled cauliflower! Even the dog would not eat these under the table!

It hurts to write about these memories. The invention of “instant” potatoes should go down in history as the demise of any American culinary art for that period of our young lives.

Well, in spite of all of childhood’s culinary mayhem, we were lucky to have family that made some things we loved and remember today.

We were food critics from the beginning, but our voices were silenced by our mothers and the fact that we were basically hungry and ate (mostly) what was set before us – unless we could pass things like under-cooked peas to the dog.

Seán remembers the cook at Vashon grade school. He thinks that Mrs. Pederson was her name, if memory serves. She was a good cook, though she always burned the canned peas, so much so that we called them “cigar peas” because they smelled and tasted like burnt cigars.

Seán’s brother Mike hated peas more than anybody and would try to pass them to the dog, folded up discreetly in a napkin, under the table. The dog hated peas even more than Mike, and Mike was occasionally caught out by the obvious evidence of shredded, pea-stained napkin parts. Family legend has it that Mike might have occasionally diverted the blame to someone else, although no one really believed that the dog had been the original naughty one.

We loved scalloped potatoes with farm cream and homegrown spuds, and of course, mac and cheese. Perhaps the best memories involve fish and chips or clam chowder. Salmon was always on the table, canned, smoked, or baked. Sometimes, we had so much salmon that we traded for peanut butter sandwiches at school lunchtime.

Beans and ham were constant staples, made to a consistent ideal. Although somewhat different techniques arise between us, we still make a passable clam chowder that is pretty much the same, no matter who makes it. The difference might be which clams look good at Thriftway. One of us adds either more or less onions than the other. I forget who uses less or more onions.

One item made around New Years or Christmas was “oyster stew.” The composition was oysters … butter … celery leaf … cream, and more butter… and onions. Plus, a secret addition, which we are trying to recall. It was so secret we forgot exactly the secret, but we can tell you that onions were still in the stew every year.

February 9, 2024

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